So first, lets take a look at the batting order which started against the Giants on opening day, Friday March 28th 2008:
1 Keizo Kawashima (3B)
2 Hiroyasu Tanaka (2B)
3 Norichika Aoki (CF)
4 Adam Riggs (1B)
5 Aaron Guiel (RF)
6 Shinya Miyamoto (SS)
7 Yasushi Ihara (LF)
8 Masakazu Fukukawa (C).
And next, the lineup from the recent game against the Giants on Saturday September 6th:
1 Kazuki Fukuchi (RF)
2 Shinya Miyamoto (3B)
3 Norichika Aoki (CF)
4 Kazuhiro Hatakeyama (1B)
5 Yasushi Ihara (LF)
6 Hiroyasu Tanaka (2B)
7 Keizo Kawashima (SS)
8 Masakazu Fukukawa (C)
So, quite a few changes both in terms of personnel and the batting order, so lets have a look at some of the key changes:
The Foreign factor (or indeed, the lack of it)
Yakult entered 2008 with an American and a Canadian expected to feature in the starting 9 night in night out: 1st baseman Adam Riggs in the no.4 slot followed by Canadian outfielder Aaron Guiel at no.5.
On paper, this looked fairly promising. Riggs joined the team in 2005 and had a slow start to his Tokyo career, but suddenly caught fire mid-way through his maiden season, and finished with a good enough record for the team to keep him around in 2006. The next season was his breakout year, in which he finished with a whopping 39 homers, 94 RBIs with an average just under .300. Injuries hampered him in 2007 as he managed just 37 games, but his average and production was well down on the previous year in the games he did contribute to.
After that year, it came as a surprise that the Swallows brought him back for 2008, but back he came. He played a part in 30 games early on in the season, but aside from a big homerun in the Tokyo Dome that helped Tokyo to a win, it was clear that he was simply no longer the player from two years ago, and the injuries had gradually taken their toll. His appearances became more fleeting until he was dropped to the farm team in early May, never to return. Adam was eventually placed on waivers and released by the team in July.
As for Guiel, the ex-Yankee joined Yakult in 2007 and had an indifferent first season, blasting 35 homers, but hitting for only a .245 average and a paltry .234 with runners in scoring position, hence his RBI total of 79 – very poor for a clean up guy.
So back he came in 2008, with the pressure on him more than ever with Alex Ramirez now at the Tokyo Dome. And initially at least, he seemed to respond to the challenge, making a hot start blasting 8 homers in the opening month, before slowing down and hitting just 2 more in May. Injuries then started to plague Aaron, limiting his playing time, and allowing others to stake their claim for a place in the starting lineup. And so now in September Guiel is limited to pinch hitting (not particularly effectively) from the bench, and now has a batting average of just .200 with 11 homers, 8 of which came in the opening month. Despite still being popular with a section of the regulars at Jingu, I don’t think Aaron will be back in a Swallows uniform in 2009.
The outfield has seen quite a number of changes during the course of this year. The ever constant though, whenever available, has been Aoki in centrefield. I don’t think I need to mention much about Norichika, apart from the fact that the man’s class. I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. Unfortunately the MLB scouts most likely also know it and thus how much longer he’ll remain a Swallow is in question (my bet would be until after another season or two). The man who now occupies the Guiel shaped gap in right is Fukuchi. He came the other way this year as a makeweight in the free-agency move of Kazuhisa Ishii to Seibu. He started the season being used as a pinch hitter/runner, and started to see more game time in May, but initially it seemed that lightning speed was his main attribute. But he soon started to prove his worth, and really came to the fore during Aoki’s absence during the Olympics. During this time he was moved to CF and was not only the anchor in the outfield, but also become a leader with the bat, as his average rose above .300 (and indeed further to around .330 at present). He also leads the league in stolen bases with 35 so far this year. In short, he’s the perfect leadoff man – good contact hitter with lighting speed on the base paths, added to his quality work with the glove. Seibu’s loss is our gain (erm, not that they care as they’ve lead the PL all year…).
The man currently occupying the leftfield position, the 25 year old Yasushi Ihara, hasn’t had it all his own way despite his appearance in the opening day lineup too. A promising young batter, who has an uncanny knack for getting key hits, the problem was where to put him in the field. He started in right but was soon tried as an option to plug the gap at third, but it soon became apparent that he was no third baseman, as anyone who witnessed his numerous fluffed throws to first would attest. But Yasushi was another guy who would benefit from Aoki’s absence as he saw continuous playing time in left, and this reaped rewards, as he and Fukuchi started to be two of the key guys with the bat. In fact I lost count of the amount of times I saw Ihara bring home Fukuchi to score. During the Olympics he was effectively used in the no.3 hole, but since the return of Miyamoto and Aoki to the lineup, is currently being used further down the order and is currently seeing time at no.5.
MLB adventure, we have had a gaping whole at 3rd that we’ve never quite managed to fill. Allsorts of players have been tried there, from Ihara, to Miyade, Kawashima and the plucky but ultimately useless Shiroishi. But a permanent solution has never been found, until now, with a little help from the Beijing Olympics. In the months before the Olympics, Yakult, aware that they were about to lose their veteran shortstop Shinya Miyamoto for a month, looked at what
they had tried before, realized that nothing had worked, and took action, bringing in Wilson Valdez from the Korean league as cover. In order to prepare Wilson, he was thrown straight into the lineup and Shinya was moved to third for the first time in his 12 year pro-career. Shinya left for the Olympics, but Wilson’s poor batting (possibly combined with arguments with management) lead to him being dropped to the farm. The man who now found himself with time at short was utility man Keizo Kawashima. Kawashima came to the Swallows from Nippon Ham this year as part of the trade that saw starter Shugo Fuji head north. He has seen time at third and in the outfield
too this year. But when Miyamoto returned from Beijing, instead of reclaiming his position at short, he reoccupied third. In fact, with his speed and range at short decreasing now he’s reached 37, the Swallows probably thought the Olympics were a perfect opportunity to re-position him at third, filling a major gap, but still retaining his gold glove. Kawashima, always gives 100% and has done well so far at short and can hopefully can make the position his own at Tokyo, though he could do with improving his batting a little (he currently averages around .250).
One more thing on Miyamoto. You’ll notice that he, Yakult’s traditional no.2 hitter, started the year batting 6th. This was possibly due to the fact that at his age, and with his fading speed management felt it was time to use him further down the order, but after it was clear that 2008 was shaping up to be one of his best ever with the bat (he’s currently batting above .320) they reconsidered and restored him in his traditional slot.
1st base: With Riggs fading into oblivion, out of nowhere over the horizon and out of the sun came the savior, Kazuhiro Hatakeyama. Called up from the farm in April after seven seasons of obscurity with the
organisation, he started seeing time at first as it was clear Riggs was done, as well as time at third too. But it was during the interleague play in May that he really started to establish himself, managing to bring the stellar on base percentage and slugging percentage from the farm team with him. While he’s not your traditional no.4 hitter, in that he doesn’t hit much for power, Hatakeyama has established himself as the starting firstbaseman and cleanup man for the Swallows. He is truly one of the success stories of 2008.
2nd base: Hiroyasu Tanaka, or beavis as he is known by his teamates, has made this position his own. A beneficiary of seeing a lot of playing time during 2007′s disastrous last placed season, he returned in 2008 with confidence that only consistent playing time can generate. Dubbed “the diamond master” when he was introduced at games in 2007, he is an able fielder with the glove. In 2008, he has also become adept with the bat too, batting around .340 in the first months of the year. Hiroyasu cited Aoki as his role-model, and stated that he wanted to surpass, not merely equal, the achievements of his teammate. Well, it’s a bit early to be talking Aoki comparisons, and Tanaka’s average is now hovering at around .300, but he is certainly improving as a ballplayer, and will have a huge part to play in the future of the Swallows for years to come.
The Catcher Conundrum
Atsuya Furuta – Swallows legend & the best Japanese catcher of recent times. A genius behind the plate and a linchpin of the batting lineup. Those are big shoes to fill. And as things stand, they’re still far from being filled. Masakazu Fukukawa started the year behind home plate, and has seen the most time there this year. The 32 year old is decent enough behind the plate, but one thing lets him down – he can’t bat for shit. His average has been down below .200 for most of the year, pitch him anywhere except inside and he’s a goner. This gaping hole in the batting order that he provides led to manager Takada trying out a couple of other options. Such as the 26 year old Kawamoto, one for the future for sure but still a little soon for the starting position. And the 27 year old Kinugawa, an acquisition from the industrial leagues, who looks the best with the bat of the three, but is currently back down on the farm team. Of these it seems that Fukukawa is the chosen one for now at least, and he has shown signs of improvement with the bat of late, clubbing a fair few homers in recent games (now 7 on the year) and his average is now up to the giddy heights of just north of .200 (nosebleed!), but he really must continue to improve with the bat, and fast.
So, that’s the current state of play for the position players at Tokyo. And as the current lineup goes, I’d say it’s a pretty promising one.
pretty happy. Aoki, Miyamoto, Fukuchi, Tanaka, Ihara are all keepers, and Hatakeyama will be too if he can keep it up next year. Just a bit more power and that lineup would be a playoff contender for sure. So perhaps our scouts can find another Ramirez or Petagine rather than another another Betts or Billy Martin. But I don’t hold out much hope of that. Maybe work with what we’ve got, with someone like Hatakeyama working on his power hitting and we can solve the power riddle from within.
Whatever happens, I’d like to see much more stability in the lineup from (I presume) Takada in 2009. No more tinkering. It’s no coincidence that our recent solid form has come from playing a stable lineup night in night out. We’ve got the raw ingredients for a pennant push someday, but is Takada the right man to turn them into gold*? Only time will tell.
* The Tsubamegun Party Line is is: absolutely not, get rid of this halfwit as soon as possible. But we’ll keep (pitching coach) Araki thank you very much.